Tendrils of mist extended inward toward the tower that rose from the water like some giant’s spear, curling about the Gestrisni and obscuring what rocks might yet hide beneath the surface. Even now that their target was in sight it was slow going.
They wound their way through the reef in silence save for the dip of the oars and the lapping of water on their hull, each and every one of them worrying over what lay ahead. Just as in the thick of the fog, here too Einarr found it impossible to judge the passage of time. First the cave, now the fog: it would be nice, he thought, to be under a properly sunny sky for a time once they were finished here.
After what felt like an eternity of tense floating, the shadow of the tower covered their boat, the thing itself looming from its rocky perch to split the heavens. Carefully they rowed toward a set of man-sized steps carved into the rock flanked by much smaller jagged spires, perfect for mooring their boat. Either the gods were mocking them and this apparent entrance was illusory, or people were occasionally required to venture here legitimately.
The Gestrisni carefully moored from bow and stern across the stairs, Einarr hopped over the railing and onto the bottom of the stair. Turning, he offered his hand to Runa. “My lady.”
She smiled coquettishly, a small blush kissing her cheeks, as she stepped up on the rail and accepted the hand. “Many thanks, milord.”
Erik chuckled and Irding had the poor grace to roll his eyes. Jorir, at least, saw nothing strange about the exchange. Runa ignored them as she joined her betrothed on the step.
“What, jealous, men? I can help you across too – if you think you need it.”
Now Erik roared, the sound of his laughter echoing off of water and stone alike. “Fat chance o’ that. Stand aside, boy, let me show you how it’s done.”
Irding moved hurriedly toward the bow while Einarr tugged Runa up the steps a goodly distance as Erik sauntered across the deck. Then the big man turned, dropped into a momentary lunge, and with two long strides launched himself from the deck. He landed hard on a step not far below Einarr, still several up from the water’s surface, as the Gestrisni rocked violently behind him.
Jorir swore as only a dwarf can swear, and Irding looked pale: now it was Einarr’s turn to laugh, although he did so somewhat more reservedly than Erik had.
“Well come on, you two. The sooner we’re back in East Port, the sooner we can actually unwind for a bit.”
Irding grunted as he, too, landed on the stairs after a somewhat less exuberant jump than his father’s. “Are all raiding seasons this… eventful with the Captain?”
“Not hardly.” Einarr pressed his lips together. Irding had been eager for this adventure: how much more overwhelmed must Svarek feel, after ghosts and monsters and corrupted blood? The men needed rest, maybe even more than they needed more men, but Stigander was surely aware of that even more keenly than Einarr.
Jorir landed almost as heavily as Erik had, although once again not trying to best the man’s long jump. “Shall we?”
With a nod, Einarr and Runa started up the stairway. The others fell in behind.
The path marked by the cut-in stairs spiralled around and up the rock. It could have been no more than eight feet vertically from the water to the tower’s foundation, but it was a steep spiral and by the top of it even the men’s legs burned a little with exertion. Runa, who was not used to such labors, was breathing heavily before the top.
The path finally ended before a smooth round stone set into the rock at eye height. Runes were carved in a ring around the outside, and the stone itself showed a labyrinthine pattern of concentric circles. There was no apparent handle, or even a sign of which way the stone would move to open the passage.
None of this appeared to deter Runa, who stood studying the design while she caught her breath. After a few minutes she began tracing a path through the labyrinth pattern on the portal stone with her finger.
“What is it?”
“Be very glad,” she muttered. “That you brought me along. Reki and Aema are more experienced Singers than I am, but they have spent their lives out raiding whereas I have had little to do with my time other than study. …There it is.”
As she spoke, her finger reached the center of the labyrinth and she pressed down. That first press was followed by several more in diverse locations around the stone. A grinding sound emanated from behind the wall, and the stone began to roll away into the rock.
“So what was that?”
“A puzzle lock, of course. And a fairly straightforward one once you understand the clue.”
“Clue? You mean the runes?”
“What else would I mean? We’d best be going through before it decides to close on our heads.”
Einarr looked up into the passage and frowned. Though it had been carved as steps, it was, at least here, nearly as steep as a ladder. “Jorir. You first. Then I’ll give Runa a hand up, then the rest of us will follow.”
Jorir puffed up his chest, pleased to be given the point position. “Very well, milord.”
The dwarf checked to be sure his shield and his axe were secure before stepping up to the door. He threw a challenging glare at Einarr and Erik both before measuring the distance. With a nod, he rubbed his hands together and crouched down.
His leap for the ledge of the first stair was more impressive than Erik’s long jump off the boat by far, although Einarr had seen its equal once: when they fought beneath Fraëner’s hall on Svartlauf. Jorir caught the ledge with his fingertips easily before pulling himself fully up on the stair.
Irding let out a low whistle, but wisely declined to comment.
“Your turn, milady.” Jorir turned and offered his hand to assist his Lord’s betrothed.
Einarr took a knee to allow Runa to step up on it. Steadying herself on his proffered hand, she accepted Jorir’s hand and made the step with a minimum of stretching.
“My thanks, noble svartdvergr. You are a credit to your tribe.”
“Lady, I am so long removed from my clan that the ill now spoken of us may well be true. For now, though, I believe we have more important matters to hand.” Without another word, Jorir turned and began making his way up the steep stair, one long step at a time. Einarr and the others soon followed.
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